John 3:16 Cook Has Saving Words for Vegas Losers

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

To many tourists, Las Vegas is a glittering, neon fantasyland brimming with jackpots waiting to be won. But the desert city has a darker side known all too well by those for whom the glitter and the promise have faded. "It's a cruel town to be broke in," says John 3:16 Cook, known in Vegas as the Skid Row Evangelist. "It all looks so easy and rich that you can't believe you can go broke. But people do." And it's a city tough on losers, even forbidding them to sleep in cars. "They sell their wedding rings, their blood and their cars, and then they've had it," adds Cook. "They can't get out of town. And the helping agencies have more than they can handle."

But the hapless drifters do have John Michael Cook, 55, a born-again Baptist preacher whose moniker, John 3:16, honors the biblical verse that he claims changed his life ("For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life"). Each morning and evening, when his cab is not on call, Cook loads his battered 72 mail truck, with its white, painted message: "Soup, Soap and Hope." Into it go the stacks of sandwiches that he and his wife, Annette, 57, have prepared, along with coffee and doughnuts procured at bargain rates, hot chili and socks donated by fellow cabbies, first-aid kits and razors. Dressed in clerical garb ("for protection—this collar saves my life"), Cook rattles off on his rounds, stopping at blood donation centers, job lines and the seamier sections where the luckless congregate.

"The very mention of my name is salvation," John 3:16 likes to proclaim. And the flock he serves takes the boast literally. When Cook's red truck careens into view, hungry drifters shuffle over. "Don't know what we'd do without Father John," says one, gratefully downing a day-old doughnut. "There's a lot of preaching going on around here," says another, "but John's the one who shows up every day." And Cook warmly reciprocates: "They're all beautiful guys, " he says, "They're just down; they're not out."

Cook takes care not to let religious proselytizing interfere with his good deeds. "I never preach to a hungry man," he says. "I just feed him and tell him God loves him." An ex-alcoholic, Cook carries spiked fruit juice for "the real bad cases—guys that got the shakes from drinking too much. They need to get straightened out to go job hunting, and there's no sense preaching the evils of booze to them in that condition."

In the two years since he first brought his Christians on Patrol (COP) mission to Nevada's sin city, Cook has endeared himself to the town's authorities as well as to the destitute. "He's just a nice guy feeding people," says police Lieut. Gene Eversole. Fellow cabbies pitch in to help with funds. And Cook's garrulous way wins hearts. Discovering he had rocker Jon Bon Jovi in the backseat of his cab one day, Cook managed to charm a $100 donation out of him. From another famous fare, singer Tiny Tim, Cook received $22 and a rendition of Amazing Grace, complete with ukulele accompaniment.

Cook is upfront about his checkered past. The son of a Denver-based traveling hypnotist known as the "Great Lucerne," Cook had a wild and reckless youth. He says he first got drunk at age 6, quit school in eighth grade and joined the army at 14. (He was booted out for being a minor.) He married at 16—to the first of 12 wives—and was divorced two days later. After 23 years of meaningless jobs, failed marriages and children lost along the way (he believes six of his eight offspring are still living, but he does not know their whereabouts), he "found the Lord" in Picher, Okla.

At first life took a turn for the better. A smooth talker, Cook teamed up on the evangelistic circuit with bullwhip-cracking preacher Lash LaRue. "I paid taxes on $85,000 my first year in evangelism," says Cook. "I was driving a Cadillac Eldorado and dressing like Liberace, had 200 pairs of shoes, but I didn't like myself very much. I even tried to kill myself several times."

Leaving the circuit, he settled in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 1971 and set up his first mission for the homeless. City officials at first praised his network of shelters, which housed 500 people by 1974. But two years later Cook was charged with drunken driving and finally in 1978 accused of misappropriating more than $37,000 from his mentally incompetent 23-year-old son, David Vance Guthrie, then serving time for burglary. After Guthrie hanged himself in the county jail, Cook pleaded guilty in return for five years probation. He was ordered to leave the state and refrain from preaching for profit. Six years and a series of evangelistic projects later, he landed in Las Vegas.

Ask him today about those sin-filled years, and Cook will admit to the error of his ways. "God made me go through the mud puddles so I could learn how to reach out to people," he explains. Today he and Annette, his wife of nine years, whom he still calls "my darling," live in a rented mobile home on the seedy outskirts of town. "I'm an evangelist to the downtrodden," he says. "That's what I am, and that's what I'll always be."

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